SEOUL, South Korea — To his followers, he is a descendant of the ancient kings who ruled Korea centuries ago, “the angel” Jesus sent for mankind, and the one and only “counselor” who can interpret the symbols and secret codes hidden in the Bible’s Book of Revelation.
To officials and politicians, he is a villain, the leader of a religious cult who is thwarting the government’s efforts to contain the exploding coronavirus outbreak in South Korea.
Lee Man-hee, the 88-year-old enigmatic founder of the Shincheonji church, is now trying to defend his group, while challenging the accusations against it.
South Korea has 4,335 cases of the coronavirus, with at least 60 percent connected to Shincheonji’s branch in Daegu, a city in the southeast. As the government scrambles to contain the epidemic, Mr. Lee and the church have been blamed for contributing to the spread, by failing to provide a full list of its members to the government.
In the past week, hundreds of church members have remained incommunicado, baffling health officials trying to track them down for testing. Major cities, including the capital city of Seoul, have asked national prosecutors to investigate Mr. Lee for potential criminal charges, including “murder through willful negligence.”
On Monday, Mr. Lee, wearing a surgical mask and speaking in a choking voice, said he was remorseful that so many patients were tied to his church. But he denied the claims that its actions contributed to the epidemic, saying that the church has been cooperating with the government the best as possible.
“I offer my word of deep apology to the people,” Mr. Lee said on Monday during a nationally televised news conference, during which he knelt and bowed.
His tone marked a shift from the message he sent to his church members last week, in which he blamed the epidemic on “the evil who got jealous of Shincheonji’s rapid growth.”
“When night passes, dawn will arrive,” he said then.
Mr. Lee has long courted controversy. He has been dogged by lawsuits, protest rallies and allegations of preaching heresy, splitting apart families, as well as going after rival churches. He has survived them all, commanding a messianic charisma over the 245,000 followers who he says the church has in South Korea and abroad.
Until now, Mr. Lee’s Shincheonji has been one of the fastest-growing religious sects in South Korea. He has employed an aggressive proselytizing program that has unnerved mainstream Christian denominations who liken the church to a cult. He has often staged large-scale outdoor events that remind critics of massive propaganda rallies in North Korea.
Like North Korea, the church has its own calendar, counting the years from the day Mr. Lee founded it in 1984. It hosts its own “Olympiad,” filling a stadium with worshipers from around the world. It features military-style honor guards, taekwondo exhibitions and other group performances similar to North Korea’s Mass Games. Often dressed in snow white and carrying his trademark hand-held folding fan, Mr. Lee likes to snap a military salute to his adoring crowds.
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“Shincheonji has been growing rapidly despite the persecutions” from the mainstream Christian churches, Mr. Lee said in an interview with the newspaper Kyeonggi Ilbo last June. “Why? Because we have a doctrine. We are not a traditional church.”
Mr. Lee was born on Sept. 15, 1931, in a poor farming family in Cheongdo, a county near Daegu. He says he began praying with his grandfather at a young age although he didn’t go to a church. He fought in the Korean War in the 1950s as an army sergeant.
He worked for another religious group deemed a cult by mainstream churches before starting his own Shincheonji Church of Jesus, Temple of the Tabernacle of the Testimony in 1984. Shincheonji means “new heaven and new earth” in Korean. In his sermons, he promises “an end to the crime- and corruption-ridden world and a new era.”
“Shincheonji only uses Jesus as a front and what its members worship is Lee Man-hee,” said Hwang Eui-jong, a Christian pastor who has been fighting against groups like Shincheonji.
Since the outbreak, members of Shincheonji have become the target of disease-control officials running against time to tame the outbreak.
Police detectives and anti-disease officials have been tracking them through their smartphone locations or credit-card data. They have visited their homes, knocking on their doors or watching from outside to see if there were signs of life inside. One provincial government sent an urgent message to citizens through smartphone messages asking them to report Shincheonji members.
If Shincheonji officials took such a message as a form of “witch hunting,” it was also a testimony to the difficulty disease-control officials have faced. An official at a government health clinic in Daegu that handled coronavirus screening did not reveal that he was a church member until he himself tested positive.
“Many church members were afraid to come out and reveal their church members, given the overwhelming blaming coming from politicians and news media that called Shincheonji the originator of the virus outbreak,” said Kim Si-mon, the church’s spokesman.
He said that church members have been exposed to widespread discrimination, taunting and even violence since the outbreak. Mr. Kim said much of the bad publicity was fueled by the prejudices mainstream churches have created against Shincheonji.
“Please stop blaming and hating us,” he said. “In a country like South Korea that has freedom of religion, do we have to die because we don’t belong to the established church? Shincheonji did not make the coronavirus.”
It’s not the first time that a religious sect shunned by mainstream churches was connected to a national crisis in South Korea. After an overloaded ferry sank in 2014, killing more than 300 people, South Koreans were shocked to learn that the ferry company was controlled by a religious leader often condemned as heretical like Mr. Lee.
On Monday, Mr. Lee looked repentant throughout his news conference. But a flash of his usual charisma appeared at the end when journalists tried to ask questions at the same time while his critics hurled him insults from the sidelines.
“Be quiet! Order!” he shouted before his underlings hurried to usher him out. “We are all grown-ups!”